A few years ago, I boarded a crowded plane to Asia. As I reached my aisle seat, I was dismayed to notice that the guy next to me had his arm all over our shared armrest, spilling over to my side. He was broad-shouldered, in early middle age, with dark, scruffy hair and chipmunk cheeks. He turned to introduce himself, but I missed his name. I’d learned from experience that on these fifteen-hour flights from Toronto to Hong Kong, there are perils in letting your seat neighbour get too chummy. What seems like harmless small talk during the first twenty minutes can grate on the nerves by hour four and become soul-destroying by hour thirteen. I pulled out my tablet and pretended to become immersed in an e-book.
But the guy tapped my shoulder. He was snacking on a stick of some kind of vacuum-sealed meat and extended another stick toward me. “Chorizo?” he said, with a smile.
“Oh, no thank you.” I turned back to my book.
He rifled in his backpack and held up a sack of Doritos.
“That’s nice of you, but no thanks.”
I felt a bit bad, like I’d rebuffed his hospitality, but I wasn’t in the mood for chorizo or Doritos, especially this early in the morning. I put on my headphones and began scrolling down the movie menu. I settled on a thriller about a drug mule played by Scarlet Johannsen.
After the film had ended, I got up to use the bathroom. Again, my seatmate tried to strike up conversation. “Good movie?”
“I’ve seen better.”
When I returned, I binged on a couple HBO series. At some point, I closed my eyes, but couldn’t come close to falling asleep. I was too aware of the rows and rows of breathing bodies all around me, my neighbour especially. And a light guilt nagged at me. Had I been unduly aloof? Some feeling that maybe I should have been friendlier and more willing to engage pulled at my gut. All my life, in large rooms of strangers, I’ve had some form of this social anxiety. According to my mother, it first became apparent when I was four, on the initial day at daycare. A shy, only child, I did not scamper off to play with the other little children, instead erupting in tears upon my mother’s departure. Although eventually I found some enjoyment in playing with a handful of the other more eccentric kids, I recalled well-intentioned pep talks that my outgoing mother had given me throughout my school years about the need to put myself out there more, take more interest in others, make more friends. Yet I’ve always felt most like myself having a smallish group of friends. And the sense of intimacy with inner lives that one can experience in reading a good novel is in many ways just as delicious as a chat with a confidant over tea.
I must have drifted off. When I came to, the plane was in a state of commotion. People were talking with panic in their voices about the stench of gasoline — it was true that something not quite right scented the air. A few minutes later, the pilot announced that our flight was going to be diverted for an emergency landing in Beijing.
Suddenly, our plane was descending at a far steeper incline than usual. We might have been on a rollercoaster coming down a hill. The flight attendants, who had until now appeared so calm and unflappable, were rushing up and down aisles and pointing to emergency exits with slightly trembling hands and one kept calling everyone “honey.”
Instinctively, I grabbed my neighbour’s arm. “Oh my God — are we going to be okay?”
“Of course, we are!” But he was making the cross that Catholics make across their chests, repeatedly, manically. He offered me a cough drop, which I gladly accepted.
“Where are you going?” I blurted.
He let me know that I was squeezing his arm too hard, hurting him. As I relaxed my grip, he told me that he was heading to the Philippines to visit his mom. Hong Kong was just a quick stopover. And now, he was sure to miss his connecting flight, but who cared about that, we both agreed, so long as our plane didn’t burst into flames. And just to keep talking, I asked him if he lived in Toronto. It turned out that he was a nurse at a hospital in Montreal. I’d lived in Montreal during my undergrad at McGill, so we started chattering about different parts of the city and the best bagel shops. He told me about his early years in Canada, where he'd immigrated in order to attend nursing school; his life story was quite interesting. I told him about my ill, elderly father-in-law, whom I was going to Hong Kong to visit (my husband was already there). At some point, I mentioned that I’m a writer, and when he asked about what I write, I nervously went on about that, too.
During that fifteen-minute emergency descent, I was startled to find that I simply couldn’t stop talking. While everyone around us remained silent, their eyes clenched, their arms crossed, I couldn’t shut up. I remember thinking that if the plane should crash, I’d rather die in the midst of talking to this stranger than trapped within the dark walls of my solitary consciousness.
The plane hurtled downward and we landed in Beijing, none too smoothly. We looked at each other, my seat companion and I, our faces both slick with sweat. After a few seconds of shocked silence, the sense of collective panic began to dissipate. Mechanics came to investigate. It turned out the gas odour had been caused by a broken fan, which could be fixed on the spot, allowing our plane to continue on to Hong Kong. Passengers started grumbling about their missed connection flights, botched meetings, messed-up schedules.
Bashfulness returned. I was embarrassed about how I’d freaked out in front of this guy, and did he think me unhinged? For the final leg of our journey, although we chatted from time to time, it wasn’t the same.
Ever since this happened three years ago, I’ve often reflected on that turbulent flight and wondered if there’s some life lesson I’m meant to extract. Be more open to talking to strangers? When faced with death, connection is what you clearly crave? Since the incident, I probably have become a bit more comfortable chatting with my gym instructor and neighbourhood barista (but I’ll never be the chattiest customer in line, and for the most part I remain my usual, shy, somewhat reclusive self). It’s strange, though. Given the opportunity to write, I feel an urge toward talkativeness, self-disclosure. Only in times of emergency, it seems, does this urge pour out of my actual mouth.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Leslie Shimotakahara's memoir, The Reading List, won the Canada-Japan Literary Prize, and her fiction has been shortlisted for the KM Hunter Artist Award. She has written two critically acclaimed novels, After the Bloom and Red Oblivion, published by Dundurn Press. Red Oblivion, released last fall, was The Word On The Street’s Book of the Month for January, included in the 49th Shelf’s “Great Books for the Moment,” and praised in Kirkus Review for showing “virtuosity in this subtle deconstruction of one family’s tainted origins.” Leslie has a PhD in American Literature from Brown University. She and her husband live in the west end of Toronto.